The beginning of this story is as much about three people as it is about one. I never would have met Abby or Yify without knowing Veronica. Veronica found me a couple of years ago, sitting alone during an after-performance party at Caitlin Trainor’s apartment. As in most cases, my shyness had gotten the better of me. There I was, sitting alone in the deepest corner I could find in a small New York City apartment. As far as I was concerned, I was invisible. Veronica came right up to me, sat down, and began a conversation. Today, Veronica is one of my closest friends.
Last year on my birthday, I planned to spend the day alone, wandering the city and finishing with a meal at one of my favorite Chinese restaurants, XO. Veronica was up at Storm King with a couple of friends. We must have been texting during the day. When Veronica found out I was going to XO and it was my birthday, she decided she had to take me out to dinner. I wanted to eat early but I knew I could distract myself for a while in Chinatown and meet Veronica at 8:00pm.
I don’t remember exactly when they arrived – Veronica, Abby, and Yify. They were late! I had already ordered appetizers — fried turnip cakes, shrimp dumplings, Chinese sausage in rice noodle, and taro root bubble tea — eating as slow as possible. Dining at XO with three Chinese women is different than eating there with a Caucasian friend. The service is faster. When I needed water or tea Veronica yelled out across the restaurant in Chinese to the closest waiter. The same thing happened when we didn’t have enough soup bowls. It’s a different culture. I’m too shy and quiet. Often I’ll just get up and grab the pitcher of water myself. The XO staff doesn’t like that! It makes them look bad. It’s why I get such good service when I eat there alone. They know me now – too shy to ask for anything more than once. Not to shy to grab something myself.
I can’t remember all the things we ordered. The wonton soup is a must with shrimp-pork dumplings that are to die for. Veronica ordered a sauteed-fried salmon head. I ate a salmon’s face for the first time! I refused to eat the eyes. No one did. I think Veronica told us her grandmother eats the eyes. That doesn’t surprise me. My grandmother ate kidneys, tongue, and all sorts of other organs.
I study people. I watched Abby and Yify throughout the evening. I learned the sound of their voices – how they move. I watched the way their eyes changed when they were happy or sad. How they held their bodies when they talked. I try to enter people’s minds, and if I’m lucky, I quickly begin to enter their souls.
Veronica is the leader – endless energy. It’s easy for her to make decisions, for herself, for everyone. Abby is a natural muse. Her sensual lips slowly forming each word. Her languid body flowing onto the chair, slow and thick like molasses. You can feel the years she lived in the southern United States. In some ways, Abby appears to float in a different world than the rest of us. Yify, she’s the “straight man” of the trio. One would be happy introducing her to family and friends. Yify seems more American. More normal. More Midwestern. In some ways less Chinese than the other two. Maybe it’s because she’s a few years older than Veronica and Abby?
After dinner we all took the same subway home. Abby was sharing an apartment with Veronica at the time and Yify was crashing in their place, trying to decide whether she should move up to the city from North Carolina. Here she would have a better chance of achieving her dream as a singer-songwriter.
Veronica and I had already done our first shoot for the Intimate Portrait project. We had become close. Veronica amazed me by how much she let go during our shoot. It was as if she had taken on a different personality. As a friend, her hello-goodbye hugs are almost distant. During the physicality of our Intimate Portrait shoot, Veronica absorbed my body into hers. We were not separate people. It was breathtaking, both physically and emotionally.
I closely watched Abby and Yify on the train while heading home. It only strengthened my initial view of both women. Abby stood, melting into the vertical subway pole. I knew I wanted to photograph her and hoped I could convince her at some point to sit for an Intimate Portrait session. I didn’t think she’d say yes, though somehow I knew there was a slight chance she might agree. Yify sat smiling. We all were making jokes. It was obvious Yify has a good soul. I can’t imagine her ever being mean or saying something that would hurt a person’s feelings. I thought about the repercussions of photographing all three women for the Intimate Portrait project. There could be exploding emotions between three close friends. I didn’t see how Yify would ever allow an Intimate shoot to happen.
I was smart about how I asked Abby to shoot. I realized she might not be able to do an Intimate shoot alone so I set up a shoot with her and Veronica together. It was a good move on my part. I got to understand Abby better while photographing her with Veronica. It was then easier when I worked with her alone – Veronica still nearby in my kitchen. These photographs of Abby were the beginning of our friendship. The photographs I took of the two of them together will always be among my favorites.
Since that time, Abby and I have done another Intimate Portrait shoot, this time alone. We hang out and talk often. Right now Abby is more of a friend than a muse. I hope the two relationships with her merge into one. There is much going on in this woman’s head – something I find very interesting and attractive. I need to capture it this woman’s soul on film.
For a few minutes, several times a day, I keep up with both my “real” friends and “Facebook” friends on the newsfeed. It gives me insights into the people I already love or hope to meet in the future. I can tell if a person is down by the tone of their posts. They are not asking for help – at least not deliberately. Often they don’t yet know they need it. It’s a good time to give them a call or at the very least, send a message or text letting them know I care.
Early last summer I could tell from Yify’s posts she was ready for an Intimate Portrait shoot. I asked Veronica what she thought. Veronica told me the two of them had just discussed it. I sent Yify a message on Facebook.
“Hi Yify. I heard a rumor that you’d be interested in doing one of my Intimate Portrait shoots. That would be great if it’s true! Let me know and let’s schedule an afternoon.”
“Hi Paul. Yes our bird travels swift with these messages. Thank you so much for thinking of me. Yes let’s schedule soon! I’ll text you. Talk soon.”
Yify and I did two Intimate Portrait shoots in June – only four days apart. Four months later, except for Yify’s warmth, I don’t have strong memories of the shoots. The physicality of the Intimate Portraits teaches me a great deal about the person in front of my camera – a person who is also underneath my body. There is no hiding. I feel their warmth, the movement of their chest with each breath. This was only the second or third time we had met and Yify already felt like a long-time friend. I won’t say this is a rare occurrence during the Intimate Portrait shoots but it was different with Yify, just as it had been with Abby. I met both women in the real world; not at work and not on Facebook. Neither women dance. Photographing dancers for the Intimate Portrait project has a different feeling than photographing a “normal” people. Dancers are used to physical contact in their work and virtually all the dancers I photograph for the Intimate project have seen the photographs I’ve taken – dozens of dance companies and hundreds of dancers. What I do for a living matters to them. They know me through social media. My photography can help promote their business. For Yify, the Intimate Portrait shoot, the resulting photographs, the only purpose is self-discovery.
Yify and I texted back and forth after the shoot. I began sending her some of my favorite photos.
Yify: “I almost look masculine here, it’s such a riveting photo.”
Yify: “This was a photo I took before the session. To see the emotional difference vs our shoot.”
PBG: “I think you might have changed just a little bit during the shoot!”
Yify: “I love all of these.”
“I look like a strong goddess.”
PBG“You are a goddess.”
Yify: “Oo! I love!!”
“You are a photography God.”
“You know what’s interesting is that I look darker in These photos than the mood I felt.”
“If you look at the mirror one – the look in my eyes is dark and arguably devious even.”
PBG: “Definitely devious sometimes. I noticed that while shooting. But “devious” isn’t quite the right word.”
Yify: “Wow that’s a scAry one.”
“It’s interesting how we both felt so warm and yet these photos convey something entirely different.”
PBG: I think you’re probably much more sensual than you realize and that’s part of it.”
Yify: “Sensuality is part of it for sure.”
PBG: Whoever this person is, they are extremely sensual. That is part of the warmth. You probably let go more than you realized. It was great to watch!”
Yify: “The third to last one still scares me.”
PBG: “That’s funny!”
“I still have to get used to the fact that you and the pictures are the same person. Your openness today blew me away!”
Yify: “I feel like there’s an immense juxtaposition of light and darkness in my soul and the shoot brought that to the surface.”
“It’s almost like the photos brought out the darkness and our emotions the light.”
“I’ve gone through a transformation over the past 6 months. I don’t think I would’ve been as open 6 months ago.”
“But it’s also that it’s with you.”
“It’s hard to say but I felt as we were shooting that I know you, and that it’s familiar.”
“Almost like family.”
PBG: “I did feel close to you. It made the shoot more special.”
PBG: “First photo. Quite a change.”
Yify: “Wow that’s a more “recognizable” me.”
“The rest I can’t even describe.”
PBG: “The first photo does seem like the Yify I know. The others are a new Yify I began to know today and can’t wait to know better.”
Yify: “I feel the same way.”
“I’d like to get to know her better as well.”
“I definitely felt her throughout my life and I’m not sure if I like her that much.”
PBG: “Ha, ha! You need that other side. I imagine whoever that other person is will be a catalyst necessary for your art.”
“Change like that can be scary but you can’t be afraid. One of my most important personal guidelines is “no fear!”“
PBG: “I’ve already forgotten how intense you were today. When I’m shooting I don’t always have time to notice the emotions. The Intimate shoots are physically and technically challenging!”
Yify: “This one is very intense.”
PBG: “Why don’t you like this side of you?”
Yify: “It’s this dark energy that I have been trying to rid.”
“Everyone has darkness but I fell mine is extremely strong. Sometimes I just want to leave this body / vessel.”
“And that picture captured it.”
PBG: “No one is pure.
“I certainly didn’t feel any darkness inside of you.”
“If anything it was the complete opposite. The connection with you today was completely soothing.”
“I have very strong senses and can still smell your perfume on my shirt. That also is very soothing. I’m looking forward to continuing wherever we left off. I feel like you’re going to help my art and soul.”
“And I’m sure of it!”
Yify: “Thank you, that means a lot to me that you feel I am going to help your art and soul.”
“I feel the same way that you will help my art and soul.”
After rereading our text chatter it surprised me how much those words matched my memories and feelings though I had forgotten how close I had felt to Yify over those few days last June. While typing the texts into my laptop I thought about how the Intimate Portrait shoots can be extremely deep and emotional. They stay with you for a long time. I often get texts from the Intimate muses months later, telling me how much our shoot together affected them – and only now are they understanding the change.
I won’t write much about the second shoot with Yify in this essay. Yify wasn’t in the mood to shoot and let me know before she stopped by. It was gong to be an evening for drinking my special green tea and eating snacks. There was emotional uncertainty from our first shoot. Yify felt it brought out her dark side – “evil spirits,” she said. I knew we needed to shoot again. I needed to feel that close to her again – to see how it would effect our friendship and my photography. I knew I would convince Yify, despite her reservations.
We conversed with a few texts the morning after the second shoot. It had ended very late at night.
PBG: “How are you feeling after last night’s shoot?”
Yify: “I feel so much better Paul.”
The first shoot with Yify was wonderful but incomplete. Many of the Intimate Portrait shoots are like that. The closeness. The physical contact. The intimate conversation. This is not a typical portrait shoot situation. The second shoot begins as a breath of fresh air. The muse now understands the process and willingly opens her soul to the camera. So it was with Yify. I took a step forward with my art. Yify took a step forward with her self-understanding. A bond was cemented.
The following is an essay written by Yify Zhang regarding our Intimate Portrait shoots.
The Intimate Portrait Project Experience – 10/16/2016 on 2 shoots in June, 2016
Fear is a monster that paralyzes.
I moved to New York in November 2015 to pursue my passion – to be an artist and songwriter. The Intimate Portrait Project intrigued me before I even met Paul. As I perused the Facebook photos, I felt that I knew the women – the photos showed me sides to them that conversations could not. My best friend, a close friend of Paul introduced us and suggested that we do a session. I remember feeling afraid. I didn’t understand this feeling back then, but looking back, I was not ready to examine myself at the level of intimacy that the portraits demanded. I didn’t know what I’d find, and didn’t want someone else to find it before I did.
A lot changed in the following months. Sometime in June, I received a message from Paul. One chat led to another, and I was on the 1 train to his apartment, peppered with excitement and a muffled sense of fear.
The shoot began on the couch. Paul started taking shots of me on my back. “Try running your hands through your hair; relax, look into the camera and allow yourself to feel whatever it wants to,” he said. I felt awkward in the beginning. My arms hung from tense shoulders and I wondered if I should have put on makeup. But a few minutes into the shoot, Paul’s movements became a rhythm that soothed my nervousness. This rhythm created a space of its own, inviting me to take longer breathes and enter a soundscape of quiet camera clicks, distant traffic, and the occasional movements of Teel (one of his four cats).
I let myself sink further into the cushion seats, relaxing into this foreign yet peaceful space we’ve created. Staring into my pupils in the lenses, I didn’t see my day-to-day self. Yet, I felt more like myself than ever. The lightness elevated me to take even longer breaths. And before I knew, Paul said, “You’re somewhere else now. I’m not even here now.”
I remember hearing a voice – a voice that said, “It will be okay. Everything that is not, will be”. The voice kept repeating these words, over and over again, until I began speaking them myself. On the outside, I was breathing heavily. On the inside, I was saying those words. I’m not sure how long we spent on the couch, but when Paul asked me to sit up, I felt transformed. In that moment, fear felt like a coat that I took off.
Paul texted me the photos that evening, and over the next few days, I studied the woman in the photos. I saw a darkness that fought and teethed, a force that frightened me.
The fear that had left me came back stronger. The first shoot happened on a Sunday, and I’d agreed to return for a second shoot on Wednesday. But by Tuesday, I asked Paul if we could just have dinner instead and not do the shoot, to which he graciously agreed.
It was such a cozy evening – soup, dumplings, and cats. From the stock market to life in the city, our conversation relaxed me and before I could change my mind, I asked Paul if we could do another shoot. This time, the shoot felt rooted in a different space than the first one. The rhythm that carried the first shoot was joined by laughter that sprung from jokes told effortlessly. Everything sounded funny and felt cathartic. Paul had become my friend, and perhaps this fact had become so obvious that Teel felt comfortable enough to also join us.
The shoot continued for hours, but to me, it seemed like a dream – did not feel long or short but defied any sense of time. When Paul finally turned to show me the photos, the images blew me away. The woman who I saw looked relaxed yet alert, gentle yet strong. She was a different version of the woman from the first shoot. The whole experience felt so easy, as if Paul had trained the camera so well that it ran the shoot on its own, while we had fun.
That evening, I revisited the pictures from the first shoot, only to find that I saw something else. Apart from the darkness, there was a light that fought back, a passion bordering desperation to express and shed the dark that was clinging on. In that moment, Paul’s words came back to me – “everyone has darkness in them. The intention of the shoots is to bring all of those shades to light”. And so it did, and it did much more.
The Intimate Portraits changed my life. It was a mirror that reflected the places I was afraid to see. In the simplest of words, it helped me put fear in its place and come back to life.